ARLENE VIOLET – You have got to be kidding me!

ARLENE VIOLET – You have got to be kidding me!

Article III, Section 7 - Ethical conduct

The people of the state of Rhode Island believe that public officials and employees must adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct, respect the public trust, and the rights of all persons, be open, accountable and responsive, avoid the appearance of impropriety, and not use their position for private gain or advantage. Such Persons shall hold their positions during good behavior.

Following the above constitutional provision, Section 8 mandates that the General Assembly establish an independent, non-partisan ethics commission. The reality, however, makes this pronouncement a farce. Look at the most recent events surrounding the appointment of ethics commissioners.

In her final days in office, then-Gov. Gina Raimondo appointed a member from a list that was almost two years old. She neglected to check on the availability of a nominee who learned about her appointment remotely at her military post as a JAG. Stationed in Europe, she rightfully declined. So much for the value Ms. Raimondo assigned to the post she left vacant for one and a half years.

The very fact that a governor picks the person himself or from a list provided by high ranking legislators is a de facto flaw. People who are subject to the Code should not handpick the judges to judge them.

Now Gov. Daniel McKee has appointed three members. Attorney Lauren Jones was his selection. He is an excellent attorney but has represented over the years a coterie of public officials in ethics cases to get them off the hook. He represented the house speaker and majority leader recently over the control of a committee which is the hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly. Attorney Jones stated that he had no intention of withdrawing as the lawyer in that lawsuit. He would recuse himself if he gets a complaint about the speaker and deputy whom he represents in the lawsuit. Recusal isn’t enough. He has cozy relationships with far too many politicians subject to the code. Further, when you travel in those political circles you become immune to behavior which should be challenged. The very fact that he has had clients, past and present, who are subject to the code should have factored in his decision not to apply.

The second candidate chosen by Gov. McKee as recommended by the speaker of the house is a professor who is a state employee and therefore subject to the ethics code. Further, her colleagues at the Community College are subject to the Code. Why are she and Mr. Jones’ appointments potential recusal problems?

The third appointee is a 2018 law school graduate from Roger Williams University. As a former trustee of the university, I’m happy that a graduate is doing well but besides being a lawyer who lobbied members of the General Assembly, his strong friendship with the chief of staff of Senate President Dominic Ruggerio, in effect, gives the senate president two votes on the commission.

After the resignation of an Ethics Commission member who hosted a political meet-up with then Administration Director Brett Smiley and Providence mayoral candidate, who himself was the subject of an ethics complaint, I wanted to hope that at least an effort would be made for independent commissioners, not business as usual. Wishful thinking.

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.